By Mindy Lucas
Improving communications with the public and dealing with the pandemic were top of mind for candidates vying for school board seats at a recent candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Four seats are in play this November: District 1, District 6, District 9 and District 11.
Earl Campbell currently represents District 1, which covers northern Beaufort County. Jevona Armstrong is also running for District 1.
District 6, which covers Sun City and part of Okatie, is currently represented by John Dowling, but Dowling announced last year he would not run again. Angela Middleton is running for District 6.
Board chair Christina Gwozdz currently represents District 9, which covers the southern part of Bluffton and Daufuskie Island. She is being challenged by Jennifer Morrow, also running for District 9.
District 11 covers part of Hilton Head Island and is currently represented by JoAnn Orischak. Orischak announced earlier this year she would not seek re-election. Ingrid Boatright is running for District 11.
League member and South Carolina’s former Superintendent of Education Barbara Nielsen moderated the virtual forum on Sept. 17.
Candidates were given five minutes to introduce themselves. The following is some of what they said:
Campbell has served District 1 for more than 25 years. He is a native of Beaufort County, a veteran, a husband, father and grandfather.
He is also a member of the S.C. School Boards Association, the National School Boards Association and Council of Urban Boards of Education.
His early and strong support for the 2019 school bond referendum was an example of fighting for educational opportunities for all students in the district, he said.
“During these troubling times of Covid-19 and economic unrest, we need experience, battle-tested, dedicated leadership at the helm,” he said.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Armstrong relocated to Sheldon about 20 years ago.
She has three children in the Beaufort County school system, is a military wife and a teacher, having taught preschool and served as a substitute teacher.
Her greatest accomplishment, she said, is being a founding member of Bridges Preparatory Charter School. She also runs a summer site for the county’s free-lunch program and founded an Amateur Athletic Union youth basketball team for Whale Branch – the Beaufort Hurricanes.
“I’m running for school board because we need a fresh and new, informed view and perspective on things,” she said.
Originally from Charleston, Middleton has lived in Beaufort County since 2012.
A former educator, Middleton has been a principal, assistant principal and a teacher. She taught at Bluffton Middle School and recently graduated from law school.
Ensuring that all children in the district are able to succeed is important to her, she said.
“That is my deepest passion to make sure that children can achieve their goals and accomplish all of their dreams,” she said.
Gwozdz has lived in the Bluffton School District she serves for 26 years and also serves as the school board’s current chairman. Her three sons attended Bluffton public schools.
She is a founding partner of Outpatient Surgery Center of Hilton Head and currently owns and manages her own medical practice, Palmetto Ear, Nose and Throat, PA.
The school board has accomplished a lot during her tenure as member and chair, she said.
“But we still have more work to do to ensure a quality education for all Beaufort County students,” she said.
A Gullah native, Morrow has lived in Bluffton for 35 years.
She is a mother, wife and military spouse and works as a deployment readiness coordinator for the United States Marine Corps.
Her three priorities are student education, enhancing the educational system and opportunities provided to students and increasing teacher recruitment.
“I’m not running for myself, I’m running for every student in the Beaufort County School District North of the Broad and South of the Broad,” she said.
Boatright has lived in Beaufort County for 12 years where she has raised three children and volunteered in different capacities – from starting after-school programs to coaching youth basketball. She also serves on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Hilton Head Island.
Education is facing incredibly challenging times right now due to the pandemic, she said.
“In addition, the school board is emerging from a difficult period of acrimony and public mistrust,” she said.
Among her key ideas motivating her to run for school board is to integrate the board within the community more and shift the focus of education away from standardized testing and more toward the ‘whole-child’ concept.
Candidates were asked a number of questions and given an opportunity to make closing statements as well.
Here is just a sampling of those questions:
Understanding that bias does not affect just one race or ethnic group, what policy recommendations would you make or suggest to ensure that institutional racism does not contribute to the achievement gap, or inequities in student discipline or inequities in cultural education for teachers and administrators?
Middleton said it’s important to recognize that racism does exist, and that everyone should be educated about it – especially institutional racism and its history. A policy should be put into place for this to occur, she said.
“Educating people, teachers, supervisors, principals, district office people about the history of racism will assist with abolishing institutional racism which will also close that achievement gap,” she said.
Gwozdz agreed with Middleton about the importance of cultural understanding.
“We need to understand each other to accept each other and to showcase our diversity and use it as a strength,” she said.
In terms of policy, the Beaufort County school district just updated its progressive discipline plan in the student code of conduct, she said.
“It’s important to know that it was revised to be certain that there are not inequities in terms of how students are disciplined,” she said.
Morrow said because she was a product of Beaufort County schools, the subject hits home for her. She attributed her success partly to the willingness of teachers to connect with parents and families outside the classroom but sees a disconnect now with those two groups.
“If we don’t educate our teachers, our administrators, our support staff about culturally where these kids are coming from, how can they best help these students and the school?” she asked.
Boatright agreed with the candidates’ previous comments adding that institutional racism is about inconsistency and occurs when rules are applied inconsistently.
She suggested the board do more listening in order to craft policies that address the issue.
“And not just to staff and not just to teachers, we need to find students and student groups … and talk to them about what their experiences are so we’re aware of what’s going on,” she said.
Boatright also noted that the school district should look at how standardized testing affects certain groups. Some districts around the country are moving away from standardized testing and toward other methods of assessment or measuring achievement, she said.
Campbell emphasized the need to have high expectations of students “no matter where you come from.”
He suggested that teachers and staff, especially those who are new or from out of state, become educated about the area’s Gullah history perhaps by visiting the Penn Center on St. Helena Island.
He also suggested a broader review of our country’s history books when it comes to African American history and contributions.
“There are a lot of contributions and things that African-Americans have achieved in this country and even in this county that a lot of us don’t know about,” he said.
In addition, he noted the need for more black male teachers in the classroom.
“Which is very hard to do but it’s something we as a board need to work on,” he said.
Armstrong agreed with the previous comments made by candidates adding that when she moved to South Carolina, the Gullah culture was new to her. She called for introducing culturally diverse curriculums into the classroom and diversity training and workshops for staff.
“And we need to look at our behavioral policies and discipline policies,” she said. “Our African American children are being punished harder than their white peers, and I’ve seen it first hand.”
The district needs to ensure discipline policies are being applied consistently across all groups, she said.
What recommendations do you have for improving the board’s relationship with the community and among its own members?
Boatright said she thought it had gotten better but the board needs to continue building on that progress and restoring trust. An acronym she likes to use is P.A.C.T., which stands for professional, accountable, communicative and transparent.
“I think what is frustrating parents with the school board is just what’s the communication,” she said, adding that good communication is now more important than ever as the country continues to face a pandemic.
Morrow said respect is missing from the school board and the board needs to work together more as a team. She said the lack of respect or even disgust from one board member to another could be seen and heard when watching board proceedings.
“Me as a parent, I’m sitting watching all this,” Morrow said. “When I say respect, how do we build that respect and trust, not only with our parents and students, but with our community members.”
When it came to decisions being made to return to school, parents were frustrated with the lack of communication, she said. The district had just announced, the night before the forum, it would be returning to in-person education using a two-day a week hybrid model, beginning Oct. 5.
“Once that information went public, the school board and the school district should have been able to immediately tell parents, ‘This is our way ahead, this is our path. Let us alleviate some of your concerns,’” she said.
Gwozdz said she believes the new board, seated almost two years ago, and its new leadership have regained public trust as evident by the overwhelming support for the $344 million school bond referendum, which passed with almost 70 percent of the vote in 2019.
She said in order to continue growing the community’s trust, the board needs to partner with the community on other initiatives like it did with the bond referendum.
Gwozdz also agreed with Boatright and Morrow on the need for professionalism and respect on the board and stressed professional development.
“But our power and our authority is only as a single board,” she said. “We don’t have any power as a single individual.”
Middleton also said the board had gotten better “in the last few years,” but could still benefit from clear communications – especially with the latest decision to return to in-person education in October.
“We also need to be very professional. That has gotten better … and the transparency – that builds trust,” she said. “When people know what the board is doing at all times, then they will invest and they will trust the board.”
Armstrong agreed with the need for respectful communication among board members but with the public and parents as well.
“Right now, we really don’t have much communication,” she said, referring to the previous night’s announcement to return to school Oct. 5.
“That’s it. We didn’t get anything else,” Armstrong said. “These are the things parents and guardians and everybody worries about. There needs to be more details in place and the board needs to show us a little bit more respect.”
Campbell said in order to build trust it was important for the board and board members to do exactly what they said they were going to do and have more respect for each other.
“People are sitting there watching us and even students,” he said.
When he first joined the board, a wise man told him to use the criticism of others for strength, he said.
“He said, listen to what they say to you. Don’t get into an argument, let them know that you are concerned about their concerns,” he said. “And I think that way you will have better trust with the community.”
Mindy Lucas is the Beaufort reporter for The Island News and is a staff writer for Lowcountry Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO IS MY REPRESENTATIVE?
To find out who your school district representative is, go to www.beaufortschools.net, then click on District, Board of Education, then Find Your Representative by Map.
You can watch the entire candidates’ forum on the League of Women Voters Beaufort SC Area’s YouTube Channel or on the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island and Bluffton website at: https://my.lwv.org/south-carolina/hilton-head-island-bluffton-area.